Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Wright, Jacob L., David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Pp. 271. Paperback. US$29.99. ISBN 978-1-107-67263-5.

While some may say of the making of many books about David there is no end, many scholars will welcome Jacob Wright's recent addition on the subject of war memorials to the Davidic corpus.

In his introductory chapter Wright introduces the idea of how David was remembered, asking why were the biblical authors so concerned about him and why is it necessary to write another book on him? Part of his answer is found in his conclusion that there are three types of Davidic texts: ones that affirm David, others that are concerned with power and how David abused it, and finally ones that combine these two apparently disparate interests. It is this combination that makes David such a fascinating and complex personality, worthy of all the attention he receives. Wright then explains why he included the much less familiar Caleb in his study of David (p. 13–14), primarily because of the numerous textual connections between these two characters (associations with Hebron and David's marriage to Abigail, who was previously married to a Calebite).

In chapter 2, Wright next discusses the role that war memorials play in establishing status and relationships in ancient and modern history and how they serve a similar function in biblical texts from Judges as well as from the David narrative. He reviews a fascinating example from post-WWI Germany as memorials of Jewish soldiers tragically failed to secure Jewish rights in the years before the Nazis came to power before WWII, arguing that this exception proves the rule—war memorials normally help social groups gain status and acceptance.

The third chapter lays out Wright's theory of two narrative strands that are behind the David narrative: the History of David's Rise (HDR) and the History of Saul's Reign (HSR). Wright argues that his multiple source perspective sufficiently explains, among other things, the surprising incident where a Philistine ruler (Achish) accepts a known Philistine slayer, David, to be his bodyguard (p. 33).

In the next two chapters Wright examines the narratives of the border peoples of the city of Keilah and the clan of Ziph and their betrayal of David (ch. 4), as well as stories of the loyalty of the Gileadites to Saul (ch. 5). In these narratives Wright discerns a connection between war commemoration and literary expansion as original narratives were modified to vilify these three groups within Judah's literary memories for their service to Saul instead of David.

Wright argues in chapters 6 and 7 that, despite divergent motivations, the two foreign mercenaries, Uriah the Hittite and Ittai the Gittite, each display their worthiness to be considered a loyal Judahite. While Uriah is driven by devotion to the nation and its deity, Ittai is motivated solely by his allegiance to the person of David the ruler. War memorials therefore bore witness to the heroic feats of these two foreigners.

Chapters 8 and 9 discuss how the Absalom narrative gradually transformed from a straightforward story of a failed rebellion into a complex war memorial describing how the various literary characters attempted to help or hurt King David. Wright suggests that David's fate as he was forced to leave Jerusalem foreshadowed Israel's exile, and that the narratives of the three delegations who showed hospitality to David during his flight (Shobi, Machir, and Barzillai) were included to honor their relatives in later exilic contexts when various diverse groups were debating issues of national identity.

In the tenth chapter, Wright observes that Chronicles portrays David more innocently than the book of Samuel, in part because many of the war commemoration texts discussed in the previous chapters were omitted. He believes that David's innocence was not the primary goal of Chronicles' authors, but that their concern was to show how David contributed to national unity and supported the Temple's centrality.

In chapters 11–13, Wright shifts focus from David the king to Caleb the warrior. In the Pentateuchal texts that detail Caleb's life, Wright not only observes the interesting similarities to David, but he also explains how these various texts transformed a Kenizzite man into a Judahite hero. According to Wright, the addition of Caleb to the spy account of Num 13–14 is a highly significant war memorial for the clan of Caleb as it reveals him to be the lone voice advocating for the initial conquest of the land. The memorial's message was clear: if the nation had merely listened to Caleb they would have entered the land forty years earlier.

In his conclusion, Wright reiterates his thesis that the David narratives underwent a three-step process, with the later layers, including the various war memorials, addressing issues of belonging and ethnicity within Judahite collective memory. He ends by speculating how all history would have been altered if Saul had been more accurate with his spear and David had died young—“No Jerusalem. No Judaism. No Christianity” (p. 230). As this review shifts from summary to evaluation, I can begin by appreciating his provocative, but perhaps overstated, final speculation.

While the book's title may seem awkward, Wright's writing is certainly not. Instead, it is rather consistently erudite as well as engaging. He writes casually, at one point describing an insight he received reading “one evening in a Tel Aviv cafe” (p. 37), which I found refreshing but for others may seem too autobiographical for a scholarly work. While some scholars may have preferred footnotes over Wright's endnotes, his extensive scholarly discussions in the notes will be appreciated by readers willing to find them at the back (p. 231–59). Wright moves adroitly from biblical narrative to history (Alexander the Great, the American Civil War), contextual literature (Shakespeare, Heller), renaissance art (Michelangelo), and film (Crime and Misdemeanors), using insights from these other disciples to shed light on David's world and that of the Bible.

Wright never really discusses theories of the redaction of the Deuteronomistic History, which is surprising for a book focusing on Samuel and Kings that is dedicated to the memory of Frank Moore Cross (1921–2012), since the theory of a double Deuteronomistic redaction is typically attributed to the so-called Cross school.

Wright's ability to make incisive observations about long narratives and books is impressive, but he may show a tendency to confidently express his conclusions without regard to their subjective nature, even occasionally omitting supporting evidence for his views. According to Wright, David views Saul's daughter Michal as “a means to a goal” (p. 5). While the text informs us David does not feel worthy to be a son-in-law of a king, it is difficult to know with certainty what David is thinking about Michal. One must be cautious about assessing motive when the text does not make it explicit. I agree with Wright that there is a tendency among commentators to view David too favorably (I argue elsewhere he was a rapist[1]). However, Wright can err in the opposite direction, viewing him too cynically at times.

In summary, Wright's thesis is compelling, his arguments generally persuasive, and his writing engaging. Therefore, scholars, particularly those whose thirst for Davidic literature can never be quenched, will appreciate and benefit from Wright's fascinating research.

David T. Lamb, Biblical Theological Seminary

[1] David T. Lamb, Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 127–33. reference